CBS Sports may have fumbled away its pro-football coverage to the Fox network, but it's on a roll when it comes to the Winter Olympics. After a hiatus in covering any Olympics since 1960, CBS is about to begin the middle chapter of a Winter Games trilogy that began in Albertville, France, in 1992 and is scheduled to continue at least through the '98 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
The famous CBS eye brought a fresh perspective to the assignment in 1992. And now, because of the new alternating summer-winter Olympics format, the network has an opportunity to capitalize on lessons learned just two short years ago. The same goes for TNT, which will provide 45 hours of exclusive daytime cable coverage, as it did from Albertville.
Despite criticism in 1992 of CBS's living-room-like set and choice of co-anchors (baseball commentator Tim McCarver and ``CBS This Morning'' host Paula Zahn), the network pretty much plans to stay the course.
``We're not going to make a radical shift in what we're doing,'' says Mark Harrington, vice president, Olympics, of CBS Sports. ``What we did last time was very successful. We won 15 of 16 nights [in the ratings]. People kept coming back night after night.''
Zahn will be at the Games again, but this time as the co-host of CBS's morning show with Harry Smith. They will work from a converted barn overlooking Lillehammer. The new host of the Olympics coverage will be Greg Gumbel, the network's regular studio sports anchor.
``We found out last time that we didn't need two hosts,'' Harrington says. ``We know now that what we really needed to do was to get right out to the [competition] venues and that the host's role was really more as a traffic cop.''
Once again, a six-hour time difference between Europe and the eastern United States means that this will be a another ``videotape Games,'' Harrington says. ``We have a moment to catch our breath and say, `OK, what's the story of the day?' We're not locked into anything.''
The effort, then, is to be packaged but fresh. Some of the material will be ``in the can'' features on athletes, issues, and atmosphere that will fill in during 120 hours on air.
ABC Sports pioneered the up-close-and-personal segments when it was the Olympic network. CBS has broadened the concept, enlisting such names as Charles Kuralt, Garrison Keillor, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf (USA ret.) to look at everything from trolls and the Norwegian prison system to a bobsled driver who works out on a North Sea oil rig. Schwarzkopf has done a NATO-related piece.
If some of this sounds pretty far afield, CBS has no plans to shortchange the sports action and at times will provide some unusual views of it.
For the first time at a Winter Olympics, a blimp will provide pictures throughout the Games (weather permitting). This could be especially helpful in events like Alpine skiing, bobsled, and luge, where viewers often are provided a montage of camera angles but no overarching picture of how it all fits together.
More often than not, however, CBS will be getting inside events, rather than peering down on them.
One star in this effort may be the coming-and-going camera, an Emmy Award-winning innovation introduced at the 1992 Games. The name accurately describes the technology that gave viewers a truer sense of a skier's speed racing past a pole in the downhill competitions.
CBS also plans to employ the lipstick-sized cameras to give an athlete's-eye view of the action. One will be mounted on the luge sled of American Duncan Kennedy. Another will be built into the side of the US hockey goalie's mask. Both decisions were approved by the athletes and their sports federations. ``I think it's a great plus for the sport and the marketing of the sport,'' says US hockey coach Tim Taylor of the Goalie-Cam.
``The basic philosophy we went into the last Games with, is that the sports and athletes of the Winter Olympics are not well known to Americans,'' Harrington says. ``We need things that get people into the sports; that's where technology helps.''
This time, he adds, there will be an unusually large number of familiar athletes mixed in with the new faces - an advantage in generating viewer interest. Prominent athletes like figure skater Nancy Kerrigan and speed skaters Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair have stuck around because of the unique opportunity to compete in Olympics just two years apart.
At the same time, figure skating has allowed professionals back into the Games on its own terms, which already has led to one oddity. Two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt, who worked for CBS in 1992, will be competing this time.
``Figure skating will still drive our coverage,'' Harrington says, pointing out that the sport is responsible for the large female audience. (Research shows that women watch the Winter Olympics more than men.)
Even with extensive coverage of figure skating, though, Harrington says American viewers will probably be seeing more Nordic skiing than usual. ``There will be enormous crowds at ski jumping and cross-country skiing. As a result, some of these sports will have a different feel to them, and we will spend some time on that. We will react to the nature of the Games.''